A conversation about yesterday’s post

January 23rd, 2009 • Kate

There’s been some really interesting comments on yesterday’s post about Lev Grossman‘s article on Modern Book Publishing. I was particularly taken by Joe’s comment. “The existence of a publishing hurdle will make the accomplishment of getting published a more meaningful one when it finally comes and, beyond that, will make it more likely that I will actually enjoy some success in connecting to readers, because it keeps me from inflicting my worst work on people.” That’s really close to what I was getting at!
I had a further conversation about the article with Rexroth, who (I think I’ve mentioned this before) is also a writer. For your edification, I’m sharing our gtalk conversation yesterday, which starts on the topic of the article, gets into some interesting stuff about revision, and ends with some additional thoughts on breaking into the industry. (It’s ok, Rexroth said I could!)
I’ll be curious to hear what you think!

[A conversation between Rexroth and Daphne, on publishing.]
Rexroth: Your post today is very interesting. It’s unfortunately something that’s hard for us to talk about, I think, but I’m glad you posted it.
Daphne: You should comment on it, because what do you mean “hard for us to talk about”? Do you mean us, personally? You and me?
Rexroth: I have opinions on the publishing industry that, my feeling is, get discounted by people in the industry as the grumbling of someone not benefiting from the industry. I, personally, know that my view of publishing as a laughably, almost pitiably antiquated structure are not going to change just because I start getting paid by them, but that isn’t a bucket that carries water with other people, so I prefer to stay silent and not get the looks that say “listen to the poor unpublished ‘writer’ gripe about the system.”
Daphne: I’m sorry you feel that way, love.
Rexroth: Which way? About the system, or about the reactions I get when I talk about it? 🙂
Daphne: That you feel your feelings are discounted — particularly, by me. I don’t want to discount anything from you! I think your way of thinking — as evidenced by top writers like Doctorow and Scalzi — is becoming more mainstream, and will, hopefully, be recognized and accepted by the system
Rexroth: My gut reaction to your post, honestly? When did writing a story and having 100 people read it become a bad thing? That’s about 95 more than have read most of mine. At a buck fifty a download, that pays me more than I’ve ever been paid to write any fiction.
Daphne: It’s not a bad thing, on a personal level. Not at all!
Rexroth: But… Yeah. My impression of success in writing is — I will freely admit — is far more strongly influenced by indie game publishing than by Amazon sales. Which doesn’t involve a publishing industry that needs a book to sell thousands of copies to break even. So I understand where my idea of success is not workable in publishing. I dunno. I just like stories. All this other stuff… it’s good there are people who do it, cuz it makes me not want to write. 🙂
Daphne: And for you then, maybe — given that mindset and the fact that you have, conceivably, via your blogs and wiki, an audience that would buy it — it might be something to consider seriously. I hate that the publishing industry, where I make my living (sometimes), makes you less interested in writing. That’s not the point! That’s the reverse of the point!
Rexroth: It’s just… I dunno. [Editor considering Rexroth’s novel] talks about stuff that makes the story better. That makes me happy.
Daphne: That’s good! Happy is good!
Rexroth: Other people talk about whatever will make it the most saleable, and leverage the rights to the book in the mostly financially profitable way, according to the technology of 1970, and that makes me kind of … depressed, I guess. That’s not the word. Apathetic.
[We then talked a little bit about his book’s submissions, and came to this conversation about revision.]
Rexroth: Anyway: [Editor] asked for some more depth in regards to [character stuff] and specifically said “25 more pages” of book, in total. Which is 12.5 thousand more words.
Daphne: Which you could do in like 6 days! [based on Rexroth’s NaNoWriMo success rate]
Rexroth: Yeah. Just need to do it. I already know what needs written, it’ll probably be pretty easy to add. I’m just afraid I’m going to fall through the roof and get in a mess.
Daphne: You can’t be afraid to work. You can’t be afraid to try something that someone has already said they want to look at, and then complain that people aren’t looking at it.
Rexroth: Mmm, that’s not it. Right now, I have a very nice roof. Watertight and functional.
Daphne: Ok
Rexroth: And someone wants some more skylights.
Daphne: Light IS nice
Rexroth: Which, even now, I think of as pointless and unnecessary additions to a perfectly functional roof.
Daphne: Ok, then hold on, I have an idea. Consider them not as skylights, but as SOLAR PANELS!
Rexroth: But that’s not the worry. The worry is that the roof is over a roiling mass of zombies. Said zombies represent all the other stories I’m sitting on while working on this roof.
Daphne: Zombies aside, the panels have a job to do. Yes, your roof works just fine without them, but they will make your house more efficient. And if you tackle one zombie at a time, you can get through the battle, with less chance of friendly fire taking out a loved one
Rexroth: My concern is that I’m going to fall into the zombies, and they’ll crawl out and start adding things to the roof, and that it will take me another year to get all that additional stuff watertight and pretty again. I’ve been working on this story for over 7 years, and that idea … is not appealing. Put another way: I don’t need 12 thousand more words. I need 12 thousand more words that have been polished to the same degree as the rest of the story, which took a long time. 😛
Rexroth: Love, my heart, it’s okay. I need to write the stuff, and polish it, and quit whining about it, because even I’m sick of hearing me bitch. I need to be on to another stage with this thing, because I (as I relate to this current iteration of the story) annoy me.
Daphne: And as soon as you finish this and get it off, you can go back to writing something you ARE excited about! Like [your NaNoWriMo novel]!
Rexroth: Exactly.
Daphne: Or do this WHILE working on that character twitter feed you mentioned, so you can do new stuff that informs the old stuff
Rexroth: I hope they don’t all take this much — forgive me – a$$ kissing to get published though. Seven or eight years isn’t worth it for me.
Daphne: After the first book is sold, it gets easier. Usually.
Rexroth: My impression of publishing is that the first book (or two) is just the author proving that enough people like them to the publisher — once that’s established, they can just write, polish, and be done. 😛 Because some of the stuff [big name authors] write now? Would never make it one the shelves if they weren’t … them. It’d never make it out of the slush pile. I love those guys, but it’s true.
Daphne: It’s true, there is a certain open-door policy when you’re an author who’s already made millions of dollars for a publisher. But it’s not a guarantee of success.
Rexroth: That doesn’t make it BAD, but it reflects that the … threshold for entry is actually higher than the floor, once you’re inside.
Daphne: But I don’t know if you can compare [bestselling author], for example, trying to get in the industry now with his latest book, with [same bestselling author] getting into the industry with [his first novel]. I think the other thing to be aware of is the exponential increase in submissions in the last couple of decades
Rexroth: What I mean is… let’s say [recent bestseller].
Daphne: ok
Rexroth: [Said recent bestseller],were it [that author’s] first book… would be a different book.
Daphne:Possibly. But it’s not. It’s a book in a new genre for him (or was at the time), but a publisher could look at his numbers for [his previous work in a different genre] and see huge potential.
[And then we got all cute and adorable and talked about laundry and haircuts]

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6 Responses to “A conversation about yesterday’s post”

  1. Rexroth Says:

    I maintain that, in that conversation, I sound a bit like a whiny and disconsolate Frustrated Artist, which I'm rather categorically not. I was actually eye-rolling at my own whinging-on about the revisions that need doing AS I WAS TYPING THEM.
    That said, I stand by my observations about the state of publishing today, and nod along with some of the comments from yesterday.
    In the end, given the frustration of hoop-jumping to get 'in' to a deal with a publisher, I sometimes wonder if the Cost (the strain and stress) of that (largely commercial) effort might not mean that the joy you get from someone else reading and enjoying your work might not be higher, net, from freely publishing your own stuff to a few hundred people than it would be from working within the Industry to get it out to many thousand.
    I mean to say: yes, you'll reach more people through traditional publishing, but will the emotional drain of getting it *through* the Industry *to* the readers sap that achievement of so much satisfaction that you might have been better off to just post the damned thing to your blog, chapter by chapter?
    And, that asked, I then think: "There's no way to know the answer to that, because you can't do both, then compare."
    Final thoughts:
    1. I am not yet nearly so tired of the hoop-jumping that I'm willing to give it up.
    2. Daphne: You (although you are not *my* agent), agents of your quality, and [editor of which we spoke] are a few of the reasons why the Publishing Industry continues to succeed despite the fact that whole thing is a ridiculous, antiquated, fearful Rube Goldberg machine — you have heart and a great, enveloping love of stories that keeps the wheels turning when they should have rusted to immobility years and years ago.
    Anyone who doesn't see that is a Big Stupidhead.

  2. beth Says:

    I agree with Rexroth that there is a certain level of hoop jumping to get through. Many of your points (even the whining) resonated with me.
    I am currently in the process of submitting my novel through queries. It is not the first novel I have written, nor the first novel I have submitted. It IS the best novel I've written, and the one I think has the best chance at publication. We will wait and see.
    At a recent conference I attended, one of the events was a published author and her editor talking about the process from submission to publication, so that we could see both sides of the table. The author had published many times with that publisher before. I was struck by how very much work was put into the latest submission. Whole chapters were cut, were rewritten–the entire focus and plotline of the book was revised!! There was some heavy-duty revision and rewriting to this manuscript…and the whole time I was thinking to myself, 'If this author had not already proven herself with one book, there's no way she'd have been accepted with this book.'
    Which leads me back to my original point: I'm at the query stage with my ms. now. I wish there was some way I could put a disclaimer on the query: I am willing to do whatever it takes to make this book perfect. I would rewrite and revise my ms. just as much as the author I mentioned from the conference. I've been trying to get published for so long that I know the process requires work, that no matter how polished I think I have been able to make my ms., it will require more work–maybe another 25 pages like Rexroth's, maybe a new plotline like the author I mentioned. I wish there was someway that I could present that information.
    But, in the end, it's like what Miss Snark always said: it's the writing that counts. And now I feel a bit like Rexroth: that I'm perfectly aware of how whiny I sound AS I AM TYPING IT…which is a really good sign that I should quit typing 🙂
    PS: My fav line of the whole thing: "And if you tackle one zombie at a time, you can get through the battle, with less chance of friendly fire taking out a loved one"

  3. lotusloquax Says:

    I really agree with Joe's points yesterday, especially the part about the process making us better writers. If we didn't have the hoops to jump through and it were easy, we wouldn't question what we've done and rework and retool to get the best out of ourselves.
    Like Rexroth, this is one of my complaints for some authors I've read recently. They've gotten works out there that are not up to what I consider their standard. I think that, because they have so much clout, they aren't being made to go back and edit like they should to produce their best work. A newbie would never have been able to get away with it.

  4. Jenifer Says:

    I'm glad you put up that conversation (thanks Rexroth for agreeing to it!). I spent a lot of time thinking about the posts on that article last night, and Joe brought up a very good point about the existence of a publishing hurdle.
    I do think it's important that one exist, if for no other reason than to ensure that writers still continue to get paid for the work that they do. Because yeah, writing is hard work. I'd one day like to be compensated for that work too, and I think having such a hurdle in place is, ultimately, a good thing.
    Where I'm having trouble is reconciling the necessity of a publication hurdle (which is a fairly objective means of letting you know you don't suck eggs as a writer) with my feelings about blogs and personal websites and people putting up their work for free. I think that's a great thing, too. You have the potential to reach a pretty big audience that way. I don't mean as a tool for generating buzz, necessarily, though that's certainly a nice side effect.
    But what about people who just aren't cutting it for some reason? Maybe something that has nothing to do with talent or skill, but with the marketability of their work? How many really good vampire novels might be passed over because the market is getting saturated, for example? Or something that's viewed as a little "too unique"? Putting it up in cyberspace might be the author's chance to have their work actually be read. And that's the goal, isn't it — to be read?
    I don't have any answers for anyone else. I can only choose the path that seems best for me. I hope that path does lead to publication in the traditional sense, of course.
    I've been waffling on the serial I talked about yesterday (that ever-present fear : "OMG, what if this is the best thing I ever write and I blow my chance at getting an agent and a book contract because I blew my wad on a BLOG NOVEL?!), but I'll still be putting it up anyway.
    In the end, we're all just stumbling around in the dark without a flashlight. We'll have to let time answer these questions for us, I suppose.

  5. Joe Iriarte Says:

    Heh. You know, I never could have said that, five years ago. Maybe even two or three years ago. I didn't know that I wasn't ready for prime time. Now I look back on my first novel and I'm grateful that it's not out there, defining me as a writer. Now I can see that what I've been doing is struggling to go from competent to good. I hope that with my current project I'm close enough that an agent and/or editor can see the potential and work with me to get me the rest of the way there, but, if not, I'm confident I'll do better next time.
    I definitely agree that the threshold is higher than the floor on the other side, but that's understandable, and, really, alright. Like Daphne/Kate, I think that's a function of the saturation now. Maybe if I'd worked harder earlier and gotten to where I am now a decade ago, I'd be a published novelist by now. I think there are a handful of published authors I can think of where the effect is particularly pronounced, because they've enjoyed so much success that now it seems harder and harder to edit them. They're powerful enough and self-assured enough to get their way in a dispute, and so their later novels come out longer and longer and increasingly rambling, and, though they don't realize it, are an embarrassment to them, a blot on their accomplishments. I hope I never become this sure my writing is gold, but who can say what happens when someone is that successful? I definitely am given to literary diarrhea, and the fact that people will call me on it just makes my writing tighter.
    I don't imagine I'd have even a hundred readers if I put up some of my earlier work for free. I can imagine some day going the Cory Doctorow route on a work I've otherwise given up on, but I think a story needs to appeal to a certain type of reader to have a ton of word-of-mouth success that way. Geeks like me who spend a lot of time online. That's why I think it works better for science fiction, and not so well for, say, YA.

  6. Jenifer Says:

    It's almost funny that you say that, Joe, because I told my better half about this conversation last night, and he had similiar things to say (though he's not a writer himself). His advice to me (which I'm taking, btw) is to just write and then query, rather than put it out there for free.
    He pointed out that while I might really enjoy the idea of doing the serial, it could backfire on me in a big way, as you point out as well. I'd rather not have something out there to cringe over later. He's not knocking me, btw, I feel the need to say. But it was a good point, and one I hadn't really considered.
    What I just said wasn't really the point of everyone's been talking about, but I did learn some interesting things from the discussion, for sure.
    Back to the point –the Creative Commons thing that Cory Doctorow and others have done is a really interesting part of this whole technology-affecting-publishing thing, too. I wonder what the establishment (so to speak) think of that. In his case, I'm sure it's pretty helpful. I've seen lots of authors offering first chapters of novels and related short stories online as teasers for new books as well as stuff in their backlist.
    JA Konrath has done similar things with his free downloads, and I'm pretty sure that these approaches (free downloads, Creative Commons) have helped both writers increase their print sales, as well as increased word-of-mouth. Of course, it doesn't hurt that they also blog and do other things to self-promote, too.
    If you put a gun to my head, I'd have to say that this is more likely to be the way publishing adapts to new technology. But that's without being able to judge (as of yet) the impact of e-readers and instant downloads, as well as the project that Google has going on, trying to digitize every single book available. How, if at all, might Google's project affect things?
    It's exciting, but also a little a bit scary, to contemplate this stuff.